While we’re hoping it’s just a temporary setback, recent data showing a trending uptick in COVID cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. and around the world is a sure sign that greater precautions are called for.
Most of the country is currently seeing spikes in COVID case numbers except for portions of the Northeast and Midwest. The current seven-day average of daily new cases is 61,976, a 64 percent increase from the week of July 22 and a 439 percent increase from the lowest average in June 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
A vast majority of recent COVID deaths and hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated prompting many to call the surge “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Ninety-seven percent of people getting hospitalized and 99.5 percent of deaths are unvaccinated individuals.
However, the highly contagious Delta variant—which can be transmitted as easily as chickenpox— can now be found in all 50 states and is still leading to some rare “breakthrough” cases in vaccinated people. The Delta variant currently accounts for more than 80 percent of U.S. COVID cases. The CDC said preliminary evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who don’t become infected by the Delta variant can still spread it to others.
Due to this, on July 27 the CDC reversed its May mask recommendations and is now advising the fully vaccinated to wear masks in public indoor settings in areas that are experiencing high or substantial rates of transmission. The agency said that 63.4 percent of U.S. counties currently have COVID transmission rates high enough to warrant returning to indoor masking. The CDC is also recommending universal indoor masking at schools for teachers, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of their vaccination status.
In response, healthcare organizations may want to consider reinstating previous measures or introducing new protocols and practices to reduce the chances of virus transmission in their facilities in order to keep patients and staff safe. Depending on the location and current COVID situation in your area, you should review current safety protocols and plans and determine what the best level of virus protection measures is needed for your organization.
The following are seven tips to help healthcare providers respond more effectively to the changing situation and demonstrate to patients and staff that their health and safety is a top priority:
Reintroduce masking for all patients and staff. Multiple studies and CDC recommendations show that masking up helps reduce the transmission of the virus, including the more easily transmissible Delta variant. Make sure your signage and messaging keeps patients informed about your masking requirements.
Continue to encourage unvaccinated patients to receive the COVID vaccine. Though vaccination rates have slowed significantly since the spring, many are still choosing to get the doses, especially in light of the recent case surge disproportionally impacting the unvaccinated. Emphasize that the vaccine is highly effective against the virus, including the Delta variant. Send out automated follow-up notifications to patients who have received the first dose of the vaccine but still need to schedule their second dose.
Consider reintroducing other COVID safety measures. You may consider returning to safety practices like having people maintaina six-foot distance from others and offering patients the safety and convenience of “park and text.” This allows patients text you from their car when they arrive for their appointment. You can text them when it’s time to enter the facility thereby limiting the number of patients in your waiting room.
Offer patients the option of telehealth and other virtual health visits. In scheduling messages, let patients know they have the alternative of conducting a telehealth visit with their caregiver. This allows patients to receive care from the safety and comfort of their home or office and reduces foot traffic coming into your facility. Hybrid care, a combination of virtual and in-person visits depending on the type of visit, can reduce the need for patients to come into the office for many kinds of routine visits and follow-up care while offering them added safety and convenience.
Get the word out about new COVID safety protocols. When sending automated text pre-visit instructions to patients that, for example, might include “park and text” directions or reminders to fast for lab work, include information about your updated COVID safety protocols. This might include information about masking guidelines and keeping a six-foot distance from others to help ensure their safety.
Educate and inform unvaccinated patients. In post-care follow-up text notifications, include links to well-sourced information about the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccine and the latest CDC recommendations. Continue to emphasize that getting the vaccine is the best possible defense against getting the virus and minimizing the severity of symptoms in limited breakthrough cases.
Plan to inform patients when the vaccine is green-lit for their children. Ensure that you have a plan to send out vaccine availability text alerts to the parents of child patients under 12 when the vaccine gains federal emergency use authorization. It’s anticipated that the vaccines may be cleared for those under 12 as early as this winter.
For the latest data and insights about how texting has become patients’ go-to method of interacting with their healthcare providers, check out the white paper on the HIMSS survey “Patient Communication Preferences in 2021.”